A Niche Product for Mass Audiences: The Evolution of Epcot

November 5, 2014, 6:32 PM · There has been a great deal of discussion recently about where Epcot is heading in its fourth decade. The announcement of a Frozen attraction replacing Maelstrom drew plenty of criticism from devoted fans for changing the spirit of the Disney park. Beyond this particular move, the prevailing anger is really about an ongoing shift away from the original formula. It’s caused fans to build movements like #BelieveinEpcot and similar trends. How did something so promising evolve into what Epcot is today? It’s a complicated question and springs from a push to please as many people as possible.


Looking back at Epcot’s origins, it began in the mind of Walt Disney as a prototype community that would involve forward-thinking corporations and new technologies. Following Walt’s passing, Disney management developed something truly remarkable. Epcot Center was original despite what it owed to past World’s Fairs. Its combination of warm nostalgia for the past and real optimism about our future was inspiring. There was coherence to the pavilions that you could sense while strolling through the park. Idealistic visitors loved the park, but it was more of a passing fancy to others. Disney had created a product that appealed to a passionate niche but needed to attract mass audiences. This contradiction eventually restricted the thematic consistency when one side gained a foothold.

There are similar examples where products that appealed to niche groups were sold to mainstream consumers. The iPod was a dream to music fans who wanted to put their entire catalogs onto a single portable device. It was a financial success, but a company like Apple was looking constantly to grow. They realized that most people weren’t using the iPod like the power users. This led them to shift attention towards devices like the iPhone that served nearly everyone. Despite its great success, the iPod has become a relic that isn’t even part of Apple’s product line anymore. While diehard music fans bemoan the loss of this brilliant device, the rest have moved forward to the next big thing.

Another success story is Netflix, which gave movie fans the ability to rent any DVD by mail without the frustrations of a video store. Cinephiles signed up in droves and became prophets for the rapidly expanding company, which realized the limits of this market. Netflix dove into the streaming world instead while rolling back the availability of physical titles. This move alienated the niche audience, but the forward-thinking approach has made Netflix a very successful company. They recognized that most viewers weren’t looking for a hard-to-find title and would be good with watching popular TV shows. The movie selection is limited, but the convenience of the technology for the average consumer is the key.

Epcot Center was brilliant and successful, but the leaders at Disney lost faith in it. Like Apple and Netflix, they tried to deliver a product that appealed to everyone. Unfortunately, they haven’t had the same creative success as those companies. The reason is a lack of commitment to any single approach. Future World now includes thrill rides like Test Track and Mission: SPACE, but they sit alongside an outdated ‘90s show like Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Spaceship Earth was modified to include newer animatronics and a simpler script, but the descent is little more than a trivial gimmick. Journey to Imagination removed the most universally acceptable ride in the park and replaced it with a shorter, less coherent attraction that’s a shell of its former self. Characters were brought in for overlays to The Living Seas and El Rio Del Tiempo, but there was little commitment to really deliver something outstanding.

The question facing Disney leadership about Epcot is simple: what do they want the park to be? If it’s truly just another “Disney Park,” then the Frozen attraction should be the tip of the, uh, iceberg. (Sorry!) Instead of taking half measures that jumble the theme, Disney should show a commitment to attracting mass audiences to Epcot. This isn’t my preferred approach, but it would show there are clear plans behind the choices. Replacing a popular act like Off Kilter with a lumberjack show does not seem to match any particular theme. Since the decisions appear random, it just lends support to the idea that these choices are purely financial. This is an area where Disney should learn from Apple and recognize that framing the message is essential with any change. If they stepped up and revealed a master plan and how the updates fit within that strategy, it would help convince the doubters these aren’t short-sighted decisions.

The financial prospects for Epcot remain strong because of the draw of World Showcase. The chance to eat, drink, and shop at the international pavilions will always bring solid crowds to the park. The real question is where Future World is heading. Will Disney employ a niche approach to re-design Epcot or go full tilt in the other direction? A hybrid strategy could work and still please both fans and casual visitors. A prime example is Soarin’, which maintains the optimistic feeling through a rousing score and effective technology. It’s popular with the average consumer yet doesn’t contradict the park’s theming. It’s much different than the humorless Mission: SPACE, which is all about the thrill of the launch. Even in that case, the foundation is there for something much greater than the current incarnation.

The original Epcot Center seems miles away from what exists today, and the lack of a consistent theme will probably remain for a long time. While I’d love to see a return of Horizons or the original Journey to Imagination, those plans wouldn’t solve the conundrum for management. Epcot would not fill Disney’s need to attract mass audiences with these updates. My hope is that future upgrades can draw from the optimistic spirit of the original while connecting with modern sensibilities. Could a successful Frozen attraction free up Imagineering to use more creativity in the rest of the park? That scenario is possible, but the change probably won’t happen in the near future. If we can dream it, will they actually do it?


Replies (17)

November 5, 2014 at 8:26 PM · I wonder if it would be plausible to move Epcot in theme and marketing completely to a "travel, cultural, around the world" theme to expand upon the success of World Showcase. Soarin already works in this vein along with Test Track and the Seas. Regardless, Imagination and Energy need complete overhauls to something thematically fitting with the rest of the park, not bridges from the 80s to 2000s vision of the park. Sadly with Avatar looming and a Studios Star Wars and/or Cars expansion borderline more dire, it doesn't look like change is coming to Epcot anytime soon.
November 6, 2014 at 2:45 AM · Great article but I'm afraid the Maelstrom makeover will be as lackluster as the use of Nemo in Living Seas. The ride building is to small, the ride to short and the transportation method is not fitting the story. Trackless on a "ice" floor would have fitted better.

I LOVED EPCOT center when I visited it in 1987. It was exciting and every pavilion had me in awe. Now I stopped visiting because it pains me to see what is done to it. On it's own this park would never draw an audience. I bet without it's many annual event the world showcase wouldn't generate enough money either. Epcot will never be as exciting as before so the best thing for it is a total theme change.

My dream for Epcot is a split up into 2 parks.
World Showcase will become Adventures by Disney (the park). Every country will get a new ride fitting to it's country. Flower & Garden, whine and dine, every day will have an annual event. Countries will be added (also to close the view of the former Future World). This park will open at 11 to 11 but the firework will leave to make place for a fountain show in the lake. The park will be half priced though. The focus will be themed countries with Disney touches, dinning and shopping and meet and greets together with small but detailed rides.

Future World will become Universe of Heroes and Villains.
This park will house 3 themed areas: Star Wars, Marvel and Disney Villains (yes Disney needs to buy the theme park right from Universal). The pavilions will be repurposed and rethemed to fit the theme. Every night will have a special effect show around the fountain with fire, lasers and projections. This will see the end of Test Trek but an extended and faster Carland ride will make up for that in the DHS. Every Halloween a hard ticket event will be adding revenue to this park with a more adult experience then it's MK counterpart.

Both parks will share the same parking lot that will be split and have 2 separate entrances. The Adventures by Disney will use the same technique as the Hogwarts Express to bring adventurers to a world of fun with a Jules Verne, bullet like train that projects an exciting travel to and from the USA to the rest of the world. Dumbo and Timothy mouse will narrate it as they fly by but we'll see Goofy drop by in his plane and plenty of others. The ride will go trough the back of Universe of Heroes and Villains.

November 6, 2014 at 6:27 AM · I think that EPCOT suffers from upper management not being able to see the forest through the trees. There have been changes made here and there with a focus on individual attractions, but you get the sense that there is no big-picture goal.

If Disney had to chose one simple, basic, ten-word goal of EPCOT, what would it be? What is the clear message that they want to send about the park's theme and message? Until this becomes clear, no amount of ride updates or enhancements will make any major difference for the park's popularity.

November 6, 2014 at 7:51 AM · Nick, your question about the 10-word goal of EPCOT does a great job in showing what I'm getting into with this post. Upper management doesn't really know what to do with EPCOT. They want it to be for mass audiences, but they aren't willing to really develop a grand strategy that takes advantage of its assets. Instead, they're sort of in the middle.
November 6, 2014 at 8:20 AM · I think the question of what EPCOT will become is very interesting. There are a lot of possible paths that the future of the park can take. I think the more interesting question though, is what does the park NEED to be? Within the context of Disney's other Orlando parks, what void does EPCOT need to fill? What is it's role a a part of the overall story told in the Orlando parks?

I think the answer used to be that it was a park dedicated to understanding and valuing the past as well as looking toward the possibilities of the future. Is that what EPCOT should continue to be?

November 6, 2014 at 8:39 AM · Really great post, Dan.

EPCOT is a complete mess with no clear direction or theming, and that is a huge problem. Like you said, if they could simply present a coherent plan and let the audience know that they're building toward something where money is not the primary motivator, it would go a long way in recapturing our trust.

These half-measures aren't working. If Frozen is in the park's future, then that's fine. But let that be the beginning of a new direction (or the continuing of it) for the park. So it distances itself from the original intent and heads toward Kiddie EPCOT....not my preference either, but it is at least something that has a purpose, rather than what they've done (or not done) to the park recently.

I don't know what EPCOT is, and that's a problem.

November 6, 2014 at 8:42 AM · Epcot is simply hard to pin down. It is a mixture of Future World and World Showcase that each has its own goals. So a mission statement will still not fit. The park consists of two large lands unlike other theme parks with a various lands and themes.

When they decided to eliminate the original pavilions (Horizons, World of Motion), it was the beginning of the end of the original Epcot. Now, each World Showcase country has devolved into theme park lands. Let's be clear, Epcot has broken up and it should be put together as a traditional theme park and less like a world's fair type park.

My suggestion is double the size of each country pavilion by using the unused plots of land. It is clear that they will never add a new country pavilion as the countries and industries no longer see value in sponsoring such a pavilion. They can immediately add Ratatouille into the empty plot next to France and thus, double the size and increase capacity into that area.

The existing Future World is not kid friendly. There is no obvious playgrounds for young kids to enjoy. The industrial office building look is boring. Perhaps they can add interesting facades for a change.

It is a disgrace to change a terrific attraction like Imagination, which the original version was repeatable after many rides. It was sacrificed for a Kodak corporate sponsorship that is no more. We should stop trying to make fair-like temporary attractions and instead more timeless Disney style attractions. So its back to the drawing board for Imagination, Energy, and the various Innovations and Corporate exhibits. They have a lot of work to do.

November 6, 2014 at 9:10 AM · I have always felt EPCOT's original concept was a Catch-22. The World's Fair section of the park/Future World, can never stay current, let alone forward looking because technology today advances so quickly that once attraction developers have completed a new attraction, it's already outdated. Also, society had a much more positive, more idealistic view of the future when Walt first conceived of EPCOT. Then there's the sponsorship model that further hinders the development of Future World because corporations are either unwilling to fork over money to redress pavilions or have their own ideas of how they want their company image portrayed.

The first thing Disney needs to do is eliminate all pavilion sponsorships, unless it's merely a brand name on the outside. Corporate suites, meeting rooms, and sponsor control over attractions needs to be eliminated. The next thing that needs to happen is to turn each Future World pavilion into its own theme park land, as was originally intended. Each should contain an e-ticket attraction and at least 2-3 smaller attraction along with a restaurant, play area, and enough to occupy guests for at least 1-2 hours minus time waiting in line. This may mean some pavilions may need to combine together (Mission Space + Test Track + perhaps Wonders of Life and/or Energy, along with combining Innoventions with Spaceship Earth).

After that, Disney needs to tackle World Showcase by taking full control of each country pavilion. Disney should not have to negotiate with a foreign delegation to make changes to a pavilion when needed, but a relationship should be maintained to keep the sense of authenticity that guests get when they interact with foreign cast members. After Disney has control, similar to Future World, they need to create e-ticket attractions around the World Showcase to give guests something to do. World Showcase is very beautiful, but there's really not much to do if you don't feel like watching a bunch of promotional movies. The dividing line between countries should remain, but attractions should be placed so they are evenly spaced around the lagoon with plenty of smaller attractions in between.

I personally LOVE EPCOT, even in its current state, but realize that its current state and plan is a relic of the past. It could be a massive undertaking, but there is still a lot of promise in the park.

November 6, 2014 at 10:32 AM · I agree with Russel, I love EPCOT even now but it is very confused. They need to have a plan... Dan I like your reference to Neflix because for a short time, right during the plan split when everyone went bonkers over the new price structure, I worked there. The streaming is for convenience and the DVD portion is for those cinephiles who want all options. Problem was the people wanted all the options and the convenience of streaming which just wasn't possible. I can explain if necessary, basically has to do with movie rights... Legal stuff.
In short you can't make everyone happy, but you have to take chances to stay relevant and successful. Which I believe Disney is afraid to do sometimes.
November 6, 2014 at 11:16 AM · Just make future world Star Wars. Star Wars is all about futuristic stuff that looks thrown together and weather beaten like the millennium falcon or Epcot today. Stars Wars fits better at Epcot. Keep Epcot as the nerdy park.
Test track pod racing
Living with land tatooine farming
Living seas Naboo
universe of energy Imperial base
wonders of life Hoth base
imagination Use the force Jedi temple
Spaceship earth Death Star with laser for firework show
November 6, 2014 at 12:42 PM · We have watched, as frequent visitors from the mid-nineties on, the degeneration of the spirit of EPCOT. It remains our favorite park, though barely. The focus on the natural beauty of gardens and beautifully designed, classic architecture from around the world contrasts nicely with the modern, forward vision of the front of the park. As they lost corporate sponsors over the years, Disney needed a new basis for the pavilions, but did not come up with one. Education isn't enough when vehicles such as Frozen generate billions of $ over time. Over-commercializing this idealistic, park-like spot is what annoys. Walt's utopian view of life should be emphasized here to boost attendance & enjoyment. They just don't want to invest the money at this point on something providing little return financially. As society comes to value nature, ideas, and quality art and design more on a conscious level (for their wellbeing effects,) this should help. Perhaps, as Walt envisioned, EPCOT will come into its own in the future.
November 6, 2014 at 4:51 PM · Nice piece. However the issue from Disney's perspective is that Epcot is the third highest attended park in the US. There is no reason for Disney to think it is a "mess" because people are coming in droves.

Still, the park has room to spare and is designed to hold far more people than are currently visiting. So from another perspective the park is falling short.

What should be done? I don't like the idea of splitting the park, and I don't like the idea of bringing back old attractions like Horizons and Journey into Imagination as they were closed because ridership was very low. Personally, I look to Russell's post for the best "what Disney should do" ideas. I agree completely with what he wrote. Get rid of the sponsors (Disney doesn't need the extra cash, they are flush with money), take control of the park, and reexamine everything. If it works keep it and even expand it. If it doesn't work, drop it and bring in something new. Attractions like Mystic Manor and Ratatouille need a home in the US, and every country in the World Showcase needs a real attraction, not just restaurants. And, for goodness sake, add some more countries and reopen the Life pavilion. Make Epcot everyone's favorite park again!

November 6, 2014 at 6:04 PM · There is nothing futuristic or scientific about star wars. Star wars is "space fantasy" as Lucas himself has called it, set in the distant past. It is based on mythological archetypes and world spirituality/history. This is however what has made it such a success so much more than star trek and other truly sci fi genres. That being said it doesn't really fit into tomorrowland or future world of Epcot, unless it is somehow related to current space exploration, which has not been done unfortunately.
I dont think there's anything wrong with Epcots theme. The problem is there is no Walt Disney around who believes in it enough to keep the attractions current and relevant. Current leadership is only interested in increasing spending, sprearing out crowds drawn by magic kingdom, keeping guests on property and enforcing the disney brand, not a parks theme.
November 7, 2014 at 11:01 AM · Great article. Well put.
I have to disagree with Russell. EPCOT needs to go back to Walt's original vision. The Catch-22 is that the corporate sponsors and country delegates are needed for their specialized input, but the crowds need to be there to pay for it. Technology changes incredibly quickly today and this could be the perfect place to showcase the latest. Seeing what is new and in the future can give guests a new experience each time they visit - built in advertising for the sponsoring company/country. Their backing can provide the budget needed to make it all possible. Parks in Tokyo have been extremely successful and have the money behind them that is needed for bigger and better attractions.
Whether it involves bringing in Disney characters or not, the newer technologies can be presented with what Disney does best, with great storytelling and keeping dreams (of what the future may be) alive.
Walt nearly always had it right, learned from mistakes, and always kept things pushing forward.
November 9, 2014 at 7:34 AM · Disney just added New Fantasyland. They're working on Avatarland. They've closed some areas and attractions at Hollywood Studios in preparation for something new. What's missing? EPCOT.

Hopefully they feel good about where the Magic Kingdom is, they're satisfied for now with Animal Kingdom, and they are working on DHS. Perhaps they feel like this is a good plan, and they will tackle EPCOT once Avatarland is complete, and Hollywood Studios' revamp is well underway.

It's likely that the brass at WDW are in the same boat as we are here. What the heck to do with the park?

Seeing as how attendance isn't an issue, they are in no rush. Hopefully they use the time to really put some thought into how to "fix" the park. I used quotes because they may not consider it broken. But eventually I think they will get around to doing something at EPCOT as it will be the last park to get a big investment.

November 10, 2014 at 8:05 AM · I hope that you're right and Disney really is getting set to focus on EPCOT. At this point, I'd even be okay with them just updating Imagination, Energy, and Wonders of Life (with a possible new theme). If they did one per year and really took the time to do something interesting, it could revitalize those pavilions. I'm guessing the odds of this happening are low, though. They'll get there eventually, but it may be a while.
November 11, 2014 at 1:00 PM · Thanks for this well-written and timely article. We just visited Epcot last week and it's sad to see the park in its current state. Walt is my hero and I still love Epcot anyway, but there is much work to be done.

As someone whose life was transformed by the "better living through technology" message of Disneyland's New Tomorrowland and the Adventure Thru Inner Space, I put a lot of credence into rides with an inspiring and hopeful message about the future. But what would that message be today? Ideas have surely changed about how to get there.

No one would be believe today that Monsanto (or even Chevrolet) is the way. The now-unbearable Universe of Energy has a chilling scene that can only remind one of the BP oil disaster. (Two oil rings in one park. They went hard after that one, huh?) Meanwhile, The Land pavilion preaches agricultural methods that would result in mass starvation were they followed. Marty Sklar says industry came to them in the 60's and said, "No one trusts us, but they trust Mickey Mouse."

Trust issues aside, the technology itself poses a worse problem today. Looking back at all the tech that Disney pitched us over the years, mobile devices are nowhere to be found. What will we tell kids that tomorrow's tech will look like? The robots from Extant and an Apple Watch? I have an Amazon Echo on preorder. Where is that in any Disney show, and who would care if it were? Tech is so ubiquitous that it needs a fantasy/scary/alternative element to be of any interest now.

I think this leaves us few options for Epcot. I like another reader's suggestion of giving the whole thing over to Star Wars. Sadly, war will surely play a big part in the future and we're always crazy to sell a military solution to everything, so it works there. It's also a "future" (I know it's the past) that folks like and one that's entered near mythological status. A sad ending for Epcot, but perhaps a realistic one.

The other option and one that they seem to be pursing with the Maelstrom makeover is just normalize it as Magic Kingdom II. It would give them a reason to add Ratatouille and Mystic Manor (YES, PLEASE!) as another reader suggested.

But... I would love to be wrong! What kind of future can Epcot show if there's to be a future Future World?

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